Thoughts on craft, or how we’re all just achieving boredom
I’m in my second semester teaching a copywriting course and after last semester, I’ve learned a lot. For one, students will default to ChatGPT “to get stuff done.” I can’t say I blame them, it does seem awfully convenient. But when we review it in class it becomes clear the results are boring and “don’t say anything.”
Boring is unkind to your reader.
After reading submission after submission last semester I finally had to tell individual students, “Look, if all you’re going to do is copy/paste a bunch of ChatGPT cruft at me, why do I even need you here?”
For most students it was just a way to “get things done,” but with great expense. There’s the obvious expense to their growth and education. I often compared the ability to write freely, creatively, and clearly with multiplication tables: “Yes, you have a machine that can generate answers, but even at your age, haven’t you come to recognize the value in knowing 3×6 is 18?”
And there’s the not-so-obvious expense to their craft. And here’s where I started questioning myself.
SEO works by doing whatever is already online and doing something a little bit better
A new student this semester told me they’re taking my course because they want to learn SEO. Fine enough, I thought. But they added, “I tried looking at YouTube and it’s just video after video saying things like ‘make quality stuff.’”
The industry’s line for years has been “Content is king, so make quality, authoritative content just like Google says!”
But no one explains what “quality, authoritative content” is. And I argue that even using the word “content” devalues the sales copy, instructions, guides, how-tos, or ideas on your site.
The truth is most businesses aren’t geared for really groundbreaking new copy. What could florists, barbers, or a host of other day-to-day service industries possibly have to say that’s all that different from any other florist or barber or insurance agent? There are only so many ways you can write about what’s in season, in style, or how important life insurance is.
The other harsh truth is most SEOs aren’t able to figure this out, either, because there just isn’t much to “figure out.” The way most SEOs do their job is:
- Find a phrase or keyword you want to rank for.
- Google this phrase or use other tools to help compile what pages already rank for this phrase.
- Size up the top pages based on word count, images, videos, etc., then try to make a webpage that’s just a little bit better than that.
A good North Star for this is “make the best webpage on the Internet for your specific topic”, where your topic could be “21 floral arrangements perfect for bosses” or “Funeral arrangements that last longer than a week.” You can totally imagine these kinds of posts existing (they probably do. I’m just too afraid to Google.)
But you can also imagine lots of people having the same thought. So everyone is in a Cold War arms race to make a page that’s just a little bit better. You’ve got 800 words? I’ll write 1,000! You’ve got a video? I’ll make two with interactive charts!
For the Internet to cleanse itself Google is going to have to figure out some way to sort out the cruft in this race. But I believe that’s unlikely, because anytime you create a measurement, that measurement can be gamed. And many SEOs, including myself sometimes, are under too much pressure from clients to get a site in a position that makes them money. Most businesses just aren’t interested in “being different.”
That’s why my theme this year is to try anyway. I’m encouraging and demanding students spend time thinking about what makes something better and what makes something different. A florist might be able to focus on “Why men should send flowers to other men.” Here’s a whole new category. It probably exists (I’m afraid to Google it, too), but you can imagine what this might be like. It’s different, not just better.
At the time of this writing, no one has turned in anything this semester yet. It’s still the first week of class. But my hope is I can inspire students to push some boundaries here and not default to merely copy/pasting from ChatGPT. Because last semester has inspired me to try and change how I write my own stuff for clients. It has to be non-obvious, different, and not just a little bit better than everyone else.